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A spring amble in Cornwall

The winds of change have blown co-chief editor and scientist-a-large Natalie Fey to take up part-time winter residence in Cornwall, in the far South West of the UK. On a sunny day in early February, she went for a walk around Trebah Garden with her dog, who is named after element 42 (we’ll let you work that one out). Here is her report:

Tree ferns at Trebah Garden in Cornwall

Tree ferns at Trebah Garden in Cornwall (yes, it is a bit blurry*)

Cornwall is one of the first counties in the UK to see the signs of spring (and they make a big deal of it, too, see the Spring Story). So when the sun came out after a frankly dismal winter spent mostly in wellies, I grabbed a pair of walking shoes, camera and the dog, and headed for Trebah Garden, with a view to finding some chemistry among the early blooms. And we were not disappointed, spotting one of the sources of a compound to treat the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease almost immediately: Galanthus nivalis and related cultivars, commonly known as the snowdrop.

Galanthus nivalis, the snowdrop.

Galanthus nivalis, the snowdrop. (And blurry, yes…*)

In fact, galanthamine (and you will also see the related spelling “galantamine”) can be found in many members of the Amaryllidaceae family, with daffodils another contender. Our colleagues over at Molecule of the Month have done a post on this compound where you can see its structure. When Public Health England issued guidelines about the positioning of cut daffodils so they would not be mistaken for food, Compound Interest did this infographic under the #WeirdChemistry tag. In fact, daffodils, which continue to be grown for the cut flower market in this neck of the woods, have been considered as a commercial source of galanthamine, as well as other compounds, as explored in this Chemistry & Industry article from 2011 (Drugs from Daffodils, M. Jones, J. Pulman and T. Walker, C&I, Feb. 2011). The discovery and development of galanthamine, as well as its likely action in the body, have been reviewed (M. Heinrich, H. L. Teoh, J. Ethnopharmacol. 2oo4, 92, 147-162), and more recently the testing of multiple daffodil cultivars for pharmaceutically active compounds has been described (L. Torras-Claveria, S. Berkov, S. Codina, F. Viladomat, J. Bastida, Ind. Crops Prod. 2013, 43, 237-244).

A field of daffodils, not far from Trebah Garden.

A field of daffodils, not far from Trebah Garden

While I had heard about the link between these bulbs and treatment for Alzheimer’s disease before, it was news to me that hellebores, Helleborus spp., also contain compounds of potential interest to the pharmaceutical industry (reviewed in M. C. Maior, C. Dobrotă, Cent. Eur. J. 2013, 8, 272-285). Perhaps, since these garden plants come with warning labels about their toxicity, this should not have come as a surprise. The most interesting compounds found are a family of cardioactive glycosides, which, as the name suggests, contain sugar molecules bound to other functional molecules and affect the heart. Some of these compounds, e.g. hellebrin and hellebrigenin, are named after the plants.

Hellebore (Helleborus sp.)

Hellebore (Helleborus sp.)

Having by now covered a whole 100 metres of the path, the dog was getting increasingly impatient with my frequent stops to take photos, so we only managed a quick shot of the tree ferns before continuing an increasingly urgent walk to the bottom of the valley as she had scented the beach. Tree ferns come mostly from the southern hemisphere and like sheltered, humid and shaded positions. My guess is that we were looking at Dicksonia antarctica, which is frost hardy and seems to thrive in Cornwall with its maritime climate and limited frosts. The gardens at Trebah are further sheltered by lying in a valley leading down to the Helford River, and, as you can see, the tree ferns are looking rather good.

Tree fern at Trebah.

Tree ferns at Trebah

As mentioned in an earlier post on the Bristol Botanic Garden, tree ferns are related to ancient species and may well contribute to the fossil fuel stores our modern life relies on. In addition, ferns can be phytoremediators, the topic of another post, and tree ferns have been used to remove copper ions from waste water, albeit by sorption on the dried plant material (Y.-H. Ho, Water Res. 2003, 37, 2323-2330), rather than by growing them on contaminated land.

Bamboo at Trebah (yes, blurry as well*)

Bamboo at Trebah (yes, blurry as well*)

While I was marvelling at the stands of bamboo, a silicon hyperaccumulator as explored previously, Molly (Molybdenum, element 42, get it?) was more interested in digging into some serious silicon dioxide (sand) and dragged me off to the beach. Time for a selfie:

The team.

The team. One of whom would not hold still for photos. Which is why the other one looks a little strained.

Having thus expended some energy, we were able to return to the garden and start to walk back up the valley. I had spied the early blooms of camellia, most likely Camellia japonica, in some plants along the way, but before heading home I was determined to get some close-up photos of them as well. Trebah has a Camellia Walk, which seemed a good place to start. Again, camellias tend to thrive in the milder climate of Cornwall, and they also benefit from acidic, humus rich soil as present in this wooded valley. Most of the shrubs were heavy with flower buds, but few had actually opened this early in the year. Nevertheless, we found a few and despite the competition of good smells on the ground vs. flowers above head height, we managed to take some pretty photos.


Camellia flower at Trebah


Double camellias

And with these photos taken, my thoughts turned to the relative of these pretty blooms, Camellia sinensis, cultivated for tea, the national beverage I’ve become rather partial to. While you may be familiar with tea plantations in India, China and other parts of Asia, tea has also been grown on a small commercial scale in Cornwall since 1999, not far from Trebah on the Tregothnan estate. And it would be rude not to have a cuppa in recognition of these efforts…


Contributor: Natalie Fey. Inhibitor: Molly the orange Labrador.

*Excuse the blurred edges. Distracted by the Labrador pulling in the general direction of the BEACH, I used the wrong camera setting (miniature effect) for most of the day, which has given a rather “artistic” quality to some of the photos…